A House in Berlin
GB/GER 2014, 96 min
The young Scot Stella inherits a house in Berlin, where she gradually gets to know the tragic story of her family.
Stella discovers that she has a distant but personal relationship to a historic building in Berlin and embarks on a journey into the past. One that turns out to be much more alive, ambiguous and unpredictable than expected. The quest for answers takes her beyond the dispossession of Jews in pre-war Europe and post-war German restitution law to highly charged questions of expropriation of Palestinian land.
It is a work about how we consider time in the present through constructions of space - the span of time it takes to traverse a piece of prose or a photograph, the expanse of a history that one considers while looking across a city, the way you can tell a house‘s past by looking at it, the ways in which you can read pieces of a person‘s life story as you spend time with him or with her. All the different kinds of art that are in the film, including cinema itself, come together to tell a story about how we consider time as we travel through it, with Stella as a kind of vehicle connecting us from pre-war Europe to present-day Palestine. – Aaron Cutler
In a relaxed and fluid style that effortlessly mixes fiction and non-fiction, director Cynthia Beatt provides a complex yet lucid and compelling account of personal pathways intersecting with great forces of history. – Chris Fujiwara, Director Edinburgh International Film Festival 2014
Sometimes it is the interaction of a certain daily routine and a small happenstance that in the sum of things suddenly enables something like fate. As in the case of Stella.
For this heartfelt project – a classic, historically charged subject – Beatt, as she did in her earlier works, chose a narrative structure beyond the conventions of genre, which one might classify as a documentary dramatic feature – if one favors the categorization.
“A House in Berlin“ comes alive because of the commitment that all persons involved bring to the film. The adherence of the director to the idea of the film can be felt in each scene. In each scene the belief that there is an imperative, this story, which could easily be historically factual, gives the film the necessary screen presence.
A living culture of memory – Beatt shows with “A House in Berlin“ that this is actually possible. – Marie Ketzscher, Berliner Filmfestivals
Narrated and brilliantly filmed in a restrained, almost Brechtian manner, this film by Cynthia Beatt looks like a mix of fiction and non-fiction and challenges our ‘common knowledge’ about the genealogy of contemporary Europe. – Evgeny Gusyatinski, Rotterdam International Film Festival
- Rotterdam International Film Festival
- Edinburgh Film International Film Festival
- Festival des deutschen Films
- Sao Paulo International Film Festival
A conversation between Olaf Möller and Cynthia Beatt
OM: The most intriguing thing about the film is that it manages to find a balance for quite a lot of things – let’s say for a huge amount of subjects that most other films would basically crash under. I mean you’ve got the complex of Jews in Germany, restitution, etc. you’ve got the complex of Zionism, you’ve got – if only suggested in several ways – the current situation in Israel and the plight of the Palestinians. You do have Robert Louis Stevenson. You do have the quest for knowledge and also maybe the quest for difference. You do have all of these things in the film and the good thing is that, to a certain extent, they always remain ideas. You never go too specifically into any subject. You never get too detailed about things, but there is always the right kind of detail, detail that suggests enough for a certain dynamic, but never demands other details. This sounds rather abstract. For example, the few pictures that you show of Palestine at the turn of the century, 20s, 30s – this together with the way people talk about the persecution of Jews, the context of Zionism, they are enough to suggest something. It is the same with the whole restitution thing. You say just enough to basically show the problem in its betwixtness and its complexity, but you never say so much that one would need to add more, so you basically find this very fine balance between – let’s say – the just idea of a just image and what it suggests. Also, the thing I really like about the film is the work with ellipsis. It is a very elliptical narrative. Considering the vastness of the – let’s say – subjects touched, spaces covered, it is necessary to be elliptical. It is a film where I actually had the impression that it was a work that you took away from. It looked to me like – ok, at some point maybe this was four hours or so and then you created the film by taking away, by seeing how things related to each other, tested how strong a certain image, a certain gesture would be and then took away what was around it, until you basically reached that stage, where it’s now 90 minutes, or so…
OM: …so these 96 minutes were really carved out from something bigger and in that way one might call the film rather nicely sculpted. One doesn’t have the impression that there was too much, let’s say, editing material around to come up with variations, etc. There was this huge theoretical 4 hours at some point and then it was clear that stuff had to be taken out. So the ellipsis had to be created for the individual parts to be able to show what is in them and between them.
CB: One example of this was the voice-over. I kept adding more voice-over during the endless months of editing and the film became absolutely leaden. There was no more space to breathe. In an act of desperation I finally threw out all the voice-over on the near-final version. Liberation. It was clear that the film needed much less voice-over. And I could begin re-writing the necessary parts to be more concise.
OM: Your work with the voice-over is absolutely fabulous, – me being a big fan of voice-overs. I very much enjoy the way the voice-over actually often makes the images work. People seem to think that if you use voice-over you basically smash the images, which is of course utter bullshit. Quite often here, you have the impression that the voice-over literally seems to take up a movement in the image, that the voice-over also provokes sudden movement in the images. So there’s a very organic going to and fro between language and image. The work of space is also very nice. We were talking about ellipsis and there does need to be a space in which things can reverberate. I have the impression that you prefer a certain kind of space that gives enough suggestions or suggests enough space for things to reverberate, but also, due to the shadows, gives enough zones of darkness where things can be swallowed up. It is a very ambiguous space; it’s very interesting. Actually, in general, I think the work with light is very beautiful in the film. It’s quite something. It’s a very digital aesthetic – in a good way, because it works with the temperatures you have there, a particular scale of temperatures and textures that you can create with that. I was thinking that it is actually quite rare that somebody does this kind of work so nicely because usually digital just looks cold and shoddy, but here you do actually have a lot of warmth to it, which is never a celluloid warmth. It is something very different.
CB: Maybe I was trying to get celluloid warmth but the first cameraman wanted this.
OM: Yes, but celluloid warmth looks different. You have a lot of semi-dark spaces. They are rather vast but you always understand that they go other places, that you don’t see everything, you might have an opening there, somebody might be waiting, but you also see a lot of this darkness. One of the things I find quite intriguing in many of the film’s images is that they suggest this kind of memory – how should I put it? – this soulscape through which Stella moves; basically the dark spots she is constantly trying to navigate, it’s often in the images. There are very strong contrasts between images that are decisively light and others that are really murky.
CB: Just to go back to the voice over – it is interesting to hear your observations, because I was mixing the voice over with Jochen Jessuzek for the German version, doing the fine tuning, and I said to him: it’s great working with you because it’s as if we do this choreography together. I am indeed fascinated by the way that you can lay a word or a sentence into, for example, a curve in the road and it moves the image, or vice versa. I guess all my films are determined by the idea of music, rhythm, choreography of image and sound.
OM: Which is quite obvious if you look at the acting, which I also found very nice, to say the least. It is very cinematic acting, very material, very no-nonsense, very minimal in many ways, a kind of pronunciation, a delivery of words that is more delivering them than interpreting them. There isn’t that much classical interpretation of the dialogue. It is more a delivery of lines. An interested way of speaking and communicating.
CB: What I’m interested in – it is almost anti-acting. I am really not interested in enthusiastic performance or interpretations of a character or – if I have to see one more American actor being Margaret Thatcher, for example. I am unmoved by such performances. I am interested in actors who tend towards noncharacters, or if they go into their character, they merge without any fuss. What I love is this very minimal – so maybe it seems that they are delivering lines, but it is actually a combination of delivering lines with these very small human gestures that reveal awkwardness, embarrassment, hesitation, and I really like this combination. On one hand they deliver lines and on the other hand the body language is completely natural.
OM: That’s what I mean with an interested way of speaking. It is not simply delivering lines; you say them with interest, interest in the lines, but also interest in the person to whom you deliver them. It is not so much trying to interpret the lines in a theatrical fashion, but keeping them in the game in a way that it is also interesting for the others to react to them. You are not trying to put too much psychology into them, but giving them more like interesting information that somebody else can do something with.
CB: Peter Knaack and Clemens Schick checked that and worked on it with Stella because they understood what I needed in a tight situation. They were like two instruments playing together and drawing in the third. They are fine actors and particularly delightful together. You spoke earlier about the massive amount of subject matter touched upon. What fascinates me about film is that it reveals how much you know and don’t know or how authentic an actor is or not. You have summed up certain things, which I could not articulate. This taking away is actually a precise observation, because I spent nearly two years trying to take away, for the film to emerge.
OM: It doesn’t look shuffled. It really looks as if stuff was taken away. There are films where you can sense that the director was shuffling stuff around, which is not a bad thing – searching for a place for things, but here I have the impression that the place was always clear for every moment, but that the moment needed to gain weight and that the main work in editing was finding the right measure, the right weight for every moment.
CB: It was also about allowing the film – there is this intention within and you have to find it. That was a painful process, I must say. It was a matter of instinct and I was on my own. Before that, I was having to constantly rethink due to lack of money, or time and seasonal problems, this person could not be there or that one, how to deal with that, how to turn each difficult situation to one’s advantage. The whole film was about that process of fortuitous flexibility. From the very beginning. Oh, you will only give me 15.000 Euros to make a feature? – well, that’s a challenge, like a gauntlet being thrown down. There is a time where you just have to go ahead and do it, come what may, trusting your instincts. And believing that whatever will emerge from each difficult situation is precisely what the film wants and needs. Behind it, was this massive amount of material on the dispossession of Jews in Europe and my entire related experience in Germany. And on top of that came Palestine, all hovering over the process and literally growing daily. Another reason the film took so long to finish. But finally you end up with this material on the editing table and are faced with the question, how to turn it into something, the something that is there, which wants to emerge, but you no longer have any idea where to start. You are looking for something that is not visible.
OM: So you have to suggest the invisible, basically put a frame around the invisible for it to emerge.
CB: Yes. Of course it does relate to all that I love in cinema, but to have that desire for cinema with almost no funding, to create something that you can actually accept as a filmmaker is quite a different matter. However, as I said, I believed that there was, or is, a certain knowledge and integrity there that would save the day, you could almost say. And that this would shine through the material. And be visible to those who are perceptive.
OM: It certainly does – shine through.
CB: If you work on something for so long you hope that in the end…what kept me going was, I would watch it and watch it, and I would be exhausted and not want to watch it one more time, but every time I did watch it, forced myself to after being almost catatonic for weeks, at the end of whatever stage it happened to be in, I felt this deep sense of recognition. Then, of course, I would remember all that still had to be resolved and feel weary again, but that moment of loving it and knowing that it was there, if only I could reveal it, kept me going. And the tenderness I felt for my characters kept growing too. I had no idea what the film was when I finished it. But I knew I wanted the audience to ask questions.
OM: On the other hand I feel the film does not demand a reaction, it invites one. It is discreet and humble enough to not jump at you with whatever it might want you to think about. All of it is marshalled in – thank god – by good storytelling. If push comes to shove it is above all a good story well told. A good story well told, with an interest in other people’s lives, in life as such. And that hopefully stimulates thought. But it is not a film that says hey, I also have to say something about the subject, thank god not, which I find quite a relief.
Berlin, June 2014
Charlie Gormley, Cynthia Beatt
Based on a treatment by
Karin Åström, Cynthia Beatt
Susan Vidler, Isi Metzstein, Clemens Schick, Peter Knaack, Achim Buch, Maria Heiden, Doris Egbring-Kahn, Angela Schanelec, Stuart McQuarrie, Marie Goyette, Annette Hollywood, Anna Gollwitzer, Gerard Brown, Martina Rissberger, Robert Campbell
Ute Freund, Cornelius Plache, Armin Dierolf, Cynthia Beatt
Andrea Jetter, Justus Beyer
Sound Design, Mix
Heartbeatt Pictures GmbH (Berlin)
Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, South West Scotland Screen Commission, BKM Scottish Screen / National Lottery Fund, Künstlerinnenförderung Berlin MEDIA